The San Diego Padres sent shockwaves through the baseball world by acquiring Tampa Bay Rays ace Blake Snell late Sunday night. News of this blockbuster trade came as a relief to Chicago Cubs fans after days of whispers that their own ace, Yu Darvish may be shipped out to San Diego. This relief turned out to be short-lived as the Padres struck again less than 24 hours after the Snell deal. Darvish, the 2020 NL Cy Young runner up, has indeed been traded to the Padres and with his departure, a once-promising hopeful dynasty in Chicago now appears to be speeding towards a retooling at the very least and perhaps even a full-blown rebuild.
A uniquely talented pitcher with the ability to throw upwards of ten distinct pitches, Darvish had a fittingly atypical rise to the top as a Cub. The Japanese-born starting pitcher began his tenure in Chicago with immense struggles. After signing a six-year $126 million contract prior to the 2018 season, Darvish managed to only throw 40 innings before being shut down with a right elbow injury and a triceps strain. In his brief 2018 season, he compiled an unsightly 4.95 ERA with a 1.425 WHIP to boot.
Many Cubs fans began to lose faith in the supposed ace when he returned in 2019 and pitched even worse, with a 5.01 ERA in the first half of the season. Whether by health, familiarity, good fortune or some combination of the three, something clicked for Darvish in the second half of the 2019 season and he concluded the year with a 2.76 ERA down the stretch. Darvish never looked back and continued this string of success throughout the duration of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, ultimately falling just shy of Cincinnati Reds ace Trevor Bauer for NL Cy Young honors.
Combine this remarkable renaissance with Darvish’s historical dominance in the earlier stages of his career and one would think the Cubs would demand a king’s ransom for Darvish’s services, right? Or so we thought. It appears Chicago was more interested in receiving quantity in a trade for their star pitcher rather than quality, and the Padres happily obliged. A package consisting of Zach Davies and four prospects, none of whom ranked in the top 10 of the Padres farm system per MLB, was all it took for the Cubs to part ways with Darvish along with catcher Victor Caratini.
For Cubs fans, bidding farewell to arguably the team’s best player is a tough pill to swallow, but the implications for what’s to follow may be even worse. Davies is a respectable pitcher in his own right, but his upside doesn’t hold a candle to Darvish’s. Furthermore, he’s a pretty awful fit with the Cubs rotation, which would now feature four of the league’s 10 slowest fastballs if Jon Lester returns. Change of pace doesn’t work so great when slow is the only pace. The four prospects heading to Chicago in the deal all seem unlikely to be contributors in 2021, which sends a clear signal: competing next year is not a priority for the Cubs front office. If it was, there’s simply no way you make this type of deal.
Third baseman Kris Bryant will likely be the next Cub traded, as the team seeks to convert short term assets into long term potential. In accepting what many felt to be somewhat of a lowball offer for Darvish, Chicago now seems highly unlikely to net anything of significant value for one year of a worse player like Bryant. Clearly something had to change for the team after years of failing to live up to the post 2016 hype but accepting nickels on the dime for one of your most valuable assets in Darvish may well hamper future attempts to acquire top level prospects. After all, if you couldn’t even get a top 10 prospect for three years of team-friendly control of Darvish, what do you expect to receive for anyone else?
Between non-tendering fan favorite leftfielder Kyle Schwarber and now dealing away Darvish, new president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has his work cut out for him to regain the trust of the north side faithful. If there is a silver lining in the Darvish deal, perhaps it’s that the Cubs now may have more flexibility to work out extensions with shortstop Javier Baez and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Some degree of continuity may well benefit the Cubs, who did only win the division three short months ago.
It’s difficult to objectively judge trades like these without knowing what the prospects will turn out to be, but that’s part of the frustration for many. Darvish was a sure thing and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Apparently four birds in the bush was enough to tip the scales for Hoyer and the Cubs but only time will tell whether or not that decision was wise. One thing is certain, this was a franchise-altering trade that will have huge implications for both the Cubs and the Padres. In the short term, Chicago appears to be on track for a continued downswing and San Diego has suddenly become world series contenders for 2021.
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